At a demonstration at the Islamic university in Gaza yesterday crowds of mourners waved copies of the Koran and shouted: "Retaliation! Retaliaton! For the blood of this martyr." Later, a truck carrying the coffin of Yahya Ayyash was escorted by 100,000 people to the Martyr's Cemetery in Gaza. Bara, his four-year-old son, was held up to shouts from the crowd. The number of people attending the funeral - a large part of the male population of Gaza - shows the potential level of support for Hamas.
Israel has made no effort to conceal that its internal security forces, the Shin Bet, carried out the assassination though without officially confirming it. Moshe Shahal, the police minister, said: "He who lives by the sword dies by the sword. We feel relief." News of the killing was broken by Israeli radio, which said Shimon Peres, the Prime Minister, was told that Ayyash had died in a bomb blast immediately after it happened.
The killing of Ayyash came when Hamas had stopped its suicide bomb attacks under pressure from Mr Arafat and his security services. Palestinian public opinion was also opposed to anything that would delay the withdrawal of the Israeli military from the six main West bank towns. Hamas may delay retaliation until after the Palestinian elections on 20 January.
It may see the sympathy for Ayyash as a way of restoring its waning political fortunes. If it does renew the bombing this will damage the chances of Mr Peres and the Labour Party being reelected in October.
Further details emerged yesterday about how Ayyash died. A friend whom he knew from Bir Zeit University visited him in company with a relative who brought a mobile phone.
When this rang the relative handed it to Ayyash saying: "One of your family is sick." When Ayyash took the telephone it exploded, blowing off part of his head.
According to a Palestinian source an Israeli helicopter was hovering overhead when the explosion took place and an Israeli on board is believed to have made the final call to Ayyash. The man who brought the booby trapped phone has since disappeared and is suspected by Palestinian police of crossing back into Israel.
The Israeli media have blamed Ayyash for the success of the suicide bombings which have killed some 70 Israelis in the last two years.Reuse content